Employer and employee lessons from the Bryan Colangelo saga

May and June the Bryan Colangelo Twitter affair took the sporting world by storm.

For those who do not follow the National Basketball Association (NBA), Colangelo was the president and general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team. He resigned from his position following an internal investigation into a number of anonymous Twitter accounts that were used to criticize 76ers players, the team’s former general manager and other league executives.

The accounts also disseminated sensitive club-related information.  The report that led to the investigation suggested that Colangelo had been operating the accounts. But, in an interesting turn, the investigation revealed that the accounts were being operated by his wife, Barbara Bottini.

While Colangelo’s departure was characterized as a resignation, the following statement from Josh Harris, the team general manager (as reported by NBC Sports’ John Clark), made it clear that the relationship had become untenable from the team’s perspective.

“It has become clear Bryan’s relationship with our team and his ability to lead the 76ers has been compromised.…  Recognizing the detrimental impact this matter had on the organization, Colangelo offered his resignation. We find the situation to be disappointing for our entire organization. We are determined to continue the tremendous progress we have made over the last two seasons in our quest to win an NBA championship.”

In addition to being fascinating to sports fans all over the world, this strange affair serves as a cautionary tale for employees and employers as they navigate the ever-expanding world of social media.

For employers, the key takeaways are:

•Consider implementing a social media policy. While it is not clear whether the 76ers had a social media policy prior to this incident, they almost certainly do now. A good social media policy should guide employees as to what is and is not appropriate to disclose on social media (on work and personal accounts) and set out the consequences of a failure to abide by the policy. While such a policy will not prevent all inappropriate social media behaviour, it will remind employees of the dangers of careless postings on social media (and hopefully cause them to think twice before tweeting). It also serves as a guide for employers when dealing with inappropriate employee postings.

•Reinforce the importance of keeping confidential information confidential. While Colangelo denied “purposefully or directly” sharing sensitive club-related information with his wife, the implication from this story is that, at least at some point, he did so inadvertently. While it is not realistic to expect that such “slips” will never occur between employees and their spouses, employers who act proactively by defining confidential information and setting out the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of confidential information should be able to limit the frequency and significance of such slips and, hopefully, avoid the kinds of situation that the 76ers found themselves in.

•Conduct investigations into misconduct. While not strictly social-media related, this incident highlights the importance of conducting investigations into employee misconduct, which is what the 76ers did.  Had the team terminated Colangelo’s employment based on the report that he had been operating the accounts, this story could have ended (much more) poorly for the team than it did.  By conducting a full investigation, the team discovered that it was not Colangelo, but rather his wife, something that might have contributed to the departure being characterized as a resignation rather than a termination.

Employers who make decisions about employees (particularly with respect to discipline and termination) without conducting investigations into allegations of misconduct run a high risk of being found to have acted on incomplete or inaccurate information and of being held to account for such failures by, for example, being forced to pay a wrongful-dismissal award. 

While investigations do not guarantee that employers will never find themselves on the losing end of a wrongful-dismissal action, they help assess liability and guide the decision-making and conflict-resolution processes. A good investigation sets out clear parameters as to scope, is conducted by an experienced investigator and allows all parties to be heard before a final decision is made.

For employees, the lessons are much simpler: be careful about what you disclose to others, even family members, and always think twice before you tweet. 

Brandon Hillis is an associate at Roper Greyell LLP.